Greg Baxter: Reflecting On The Apartment
I lived in Cádiz, Spain for six months as part of my NUI Galway Erasmus programme in 2010 and 2011. It was during my third year in a BA with Creative Writing programme and we were told by the writing department to complete ‘a significant body of work’ which would count for all our credits that year. Since I was studying Spanish as one of two standard BA subjects, I was sent to Spain to attend university there in order to improve my language skills – while I was writing in English. It was an incredible experience, mostly because I chose to drive from Kilkenny to Cádiz in Andalucía, which is just a couple of hours from both Morocco and Portugal. But it was very tough switching from writing in English to learning Spanish several times a day.
I was very lucky with the editors that I was allotted for the academic year. I had our course director, John Kenny (a well-known writer and reviewer) for my first semester, and for the second, I had the Brian Leyden (who wrote The Home Place, amongst other works). Both were intensely challenging and inspiring in their weekly edits, critiques and reading lists. One book recommended by John was Greg Baxter’s first work, A Preparation For Death. It is the bizarre true story of the author’s journey through writing, life, and near death. I was working on autobiographical stories while in Cádiz and John had recommended that I read Baxter as ‘a wonderful example of honest writing’. And it is just that. It’s tough in places, as the reader is brought along the author’s ‘car crash in slow motion’ lifestyle.
His latest work, The Apartment, is equally honest and original. With both books I felt a real connection with the writher and wanted to join him on his exploration of self and place. Although we are never told where The Apartment is set, I had my suspicions as to the location of the once war-torn city.
I had been living in Japan while the Yugoslav Wars were happening in the early to mid-nineties and I don’t remember much attention being paid to the events there. Or maybe my being from southern Ireland meant that I had become so used to daily news bulletins of a long-term war in a place that I had never been to, so that I paid it little heed.
I was in my late twenties a few years later when U2 released Miss Sarajevo. Pavarotti’s voice gripped my ears and the video clips shocked my eyes. I was moved to tears, and still am when I hear it. I wonder what affects me so deeply. The futility of war? Guilt for not taking a stand during the Yugoslav Wars, The Troubles, and countless others that I heard reports on but did nothing about? My own inadequacies when compared with the extraordinary bravery of the citizens who refused to be driven out of their own towns, even when faced with death?
I don’t know why, but these thoughts haunted me until I visited Belfast a few times to try to understand, not so much the issues (I read about those), but how a human being manages to survive, and sometimes thrive, under inhumane conditions.
In 2005 I travelled around Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia. There, just as when I was in Northern Ireland, I received a harrowing education and I realised how comfortably naive I really had been. (I once wore Union Jack socks to a Wolfe Tones concert and showed them to my family and friends who were attending, in order to prove that I had no political stance.)
All of these thoughts returned as I read Baxter’s The Apartment, and I imagined the protagonist roaming the streets of Sarajevo. And I was reminded also of the complexities of Croatian and Bosnian life in these still unstable times.
Baxter displays many signs of inner-conflict. On the US Army in Iraq he writes: ‘But I also encountered the calm, stoic intelligence of the men who seemed less like human beings and more like discrete manifestations of the immortality of violence.’
But The Apartment has lots of moments of beauty: ‘The landscape changes gradually from sand and dirt and rock and cacti and brush to sun-bleached grass fields, deciduous trees, milkweed, blue palmettos, and little flowers like rock lettuce and dandelions.’ When I finished reading Baxter’s second book, I was left with an uneasy feeling about politics and war, and about my stance on both. But I also wished to experience much more. Which was the same way that I felt when leaving Bosnia years ago.
I’m looking forward to hearing Baxter’s reading on this evening as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. There are more connections between the books at this year’s festival than I had imagined. Not to mention a few links with my own memories.